A letter to the new justice secretary

Dominic Raab, the challenge of restoring the justice system is now yours. It will not be easy

September 17, 2021
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Dear Dominic,

Congratulations on your appointment as Lord Chancellor. We, as lawyers, know that this role once was, and should be today, one of the great offices of state; guardian of the Rule of Law, protector of our unwritten constitution, champion of civil liberties and human rights. Moving from the Foreign Office is not a demotion as some would like to characterise it, so long as you reinstate the Lord Chancellor in their rightful place in the cabinet, reminding colleagues when they overstep the mark.

There is an ugly rumor that you have been given this role as the “hard nut” who will get rid of the Human Rights Act and take us out of the European Convention on Human Rights, cobbling together some home-grown protections. With your high-level training on international human rights, I sincerely hope this is not true but one of those alarmist conspiracy theories.

There is a tough agenda awaiting you in the Justice Department. A huge backlog of criminal cases (almost 60,000) will take some imaginative restoration of funding to a justice system which is in a place of collapse. Why not scrap the prison building project and divert the money to where it rightfully belongs, in sustaining what was once a world-class court system?

Nearly half of adults in Britain believe that justice does not always prevail over injustice. Recovering public trust will involve serious policy adjustments. Women and those from ethnic minority groups are particularly unhappy with how the system is currently functioning. This could be your moment!

You were a keen Brexiter, and the transition period ended more than eight months ago. Yet there are vital issues yet to be solved concerning the free flow of personal data between the UK and EU member states. I hope you will take steps in your department to ensure that the UK’s data protection framework remains aligned with that of the EU. I am also concerned that there has to be some movement on the Lugano Convention, so that there can be reciprocity and recognition of judgments in family court cases, with particular regard to the custody and maintenance of children.

There is growing concern about the creep in the use of advanced technologies in criminal justice. Recent legislation, for example, has extended the use of polygraphs for lie detection which are known not to consistently work. I hope that you will invite real scrutiny, to ensure technologies are reliable and scientifically sound before they are brought into use.

I am also concerned that in 2020, 89 per cent of all Ministry of Justice staff self-identified as white; indeed, 94 per cent at the senior levels. This is not reflective of our society at large. How can our system serve justice to the people if it does not reflect them? I do hope you will take serious steps to change the face of your department, which has a lacklustre record on this front.

And last but not least, we are currently facing the earthquake of what has happened in Afghanistan. Can you ensure that in your conversations with the home secretary, high on the agenda is the protection of the lives of female judges, prosecutors, lawyers and journalists? Around 200 female judges, and thousands more female and male lawyers and prosecutors, are still in the country. They worked to defend the Rule of Law and human rights—to uphold UK government aims. Now, they have a target on their backs.

One of the roles of the Lord Chancellor is speaking truth to power. That means holding the home secretary in check. You do law, she does order. They have to be kept in balance.

There is a lot to do to restore confidence in the justice system. We are relying on you.

Baroness Helena Kennedy QC